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Parliamentary elections in Lebanon?

The vitriol that has broken out in Lebanon over responsibility for the 4 August explosion in Beirut could lead to further sectarian conflict even with fresh parliamentary elections, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

Hassan Al-Qishawi , Tuesday 11 Aug 2020
Parliamentary elections in Lebanon?
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Even before the Lebanese government resigned last week in the wake of the explosion that took place in the capital Beirut on 4 August, there were demands for holding early parliamentary elections and replacing the cabinet.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in an address that the “corrupt system” in Lebanon had “tied the state’s hands” and that it “could not tear it down.” The explosions were a symptom of this corruption, he said, adding that unfortunately some were “still only interested in making political gains and populist electoral speeches.”

“They tried to blame the government for the economic collapse and levels of public debt,” he said. “Shame on them. This government did its best to come up with a road map” to resolve the economic situation, referring to the economic difficulties Lebanon has been facing since last year.

“Today, we have seen an earthquake, and our primary concern is dealing with its aftermath and promptly investigating who is responsible. We leave it to the people to hold accountable officials who are responsible for the catastrophe that was concealed for seven years,” Diab said.

Lebanon’s 14 March Alliance appears to be trying to take advantage of the situation by not only demanding the resignation of the cabinet, but also early elections. Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces Party, a key rival of the Shia group Hizbullah, has also called for early parliamentary elections.

 MP Akram Shoheib, a member of the Democratic Gathering bloc headed by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, said that “we are in consultations about holding early parliamentary elections... The resignation of the government is an immediate demand to produce new authority in the country.”

Shoheib said it was vital that “trusted international experts lead the investigation into the explosions. We do not trust any local Lebanese committee.”

In an escalation from Jumblatt’s camp, MP Wael Abu Faour, also a member of the Democratic Gathering and a close ally of Jumblatt, said that “I hope the cabinet doesn’t resign. Diab and his spiteful cohorts do not deserve the honour of resignation: they must be toppled by parliament or the street. And resignation does not prevent the prosecution of preceding governments, as well as the incumbent cabinet and its primary sponsor.”

Former tourism minister Michel Pharaon, close to the Future Current, said that “there has been a major tragedy and damage to homes in Al-Achrafiyeh [Christian East Beirut] that can only be addressed by the international community because the state is completely absent. There is no transparency about how aid will be delivered, and we hear they do not want aid to be given to civil society groups.”

“We need a political agreement and the implementation of the road map proposed by [French President Emmanuel] Macron, not only early parliamentary elections. We do not absolve anyone,” he added.

Wiam Wahhab, leader of the Arab Unification Party and a former cabinet member, said that former Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri “is the only one acting rationally now. Although I disagree with him on principle, he is the only rational one, and the international community wants a national-unity government.”

Wahhab added that the “the incumbent government is not the only one to blame for corruption and cronyism. Consecutive parliaments bore false witness and never fired any cabinet member. Responsibility will be revealed in the investigation of the explosions at the port in Beirut.”

The Lebanese LBC news channel reported that “Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri [a Hizbullah ally] insists on holding questions to the government on Thursday, and all ongoing communications are about this, with contacts continuing with Hizbullah and [the Shia group] Amal.”

 It added that “the cabinet views Diab’s call for early parliamentary elections and a draft law to shorten the parliament’s mandate without consulting Aoun or Berri as violations of the traditions of Lebanese politics.”

Sources from the Democratic Gathering bloc said that Berri had agreed with the bloc about holding the government accountable for the 4 August explosions. The sources said that “the resignation of the Democratic Gathering bloc MPs will depend on the outcome of Thursday’s meeting. If a no-confidence vote passes, so be it; if not, repercussions will follow.”

It is rumoured that the Future Current is also considering withdrawing from the parliament along with the Democratic Gathering. Mass resignations were discussed during a meeting between Democratic Gathering and Geagea, who demanded the resignation of the 14 March Alliance MPs.

After a meeting with a delegation from the Socialist Progressive Party sent by Jumblatt, Geagea said that “we are hours away from serious developments. We don’t care about this government’s resignation, because whoever formed this cabinet will form the next one and the status quo will continue. Our goal is to resolve the heart of the problem, which is in parliament.”

Geagea said that not all the political class was corrupt. “Most politicians are unworthy, but we are worthy. Our pockets are clean, whether they like it or not.”

During his visit to Lebanon last week, Macron reportedly presented a new political deal aiming to form a national-unity government led by Al-Hariri to include all parties, except for Gebran Bassil, who would choose ministers from his group, and Hizbullah, which would choose its quota from among its allies.

The initiative proposes that the government agree to the formation of an international committee to investigate the Beirut explosions, and it also calls for early parliamentary elections to produce a new political class that will include extensive participation by revolutionary and protest forces.

However, Washington objects to a national-unity government in Lebanon and prefers a cabinet of independents led by diplomat Nawaf Salam not including any political players, especially those from the Aounist Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) headed by Bassil and Hizbullah.

MP Michel Daher, who withdrew from the Aounist bloc in parliament after the Beirut explosions, said that “after the abysmal failure of the government and due to political squabbles and disagreements that could delay the formation of a new cabinet, and after overwhelming and valid anger on the streets, and the catastrophe that struck the capital which reached the point almost of genocide, should we arrive at an interim military cabinet as the only solution to overcome the crisis?”

In an attempt to hold the former government responsible for the crisis, Minister of Health Hamad Hassan said after a cabinet meeting that Diab’s government had resigned and that “the people know the culprits” for the port explosions.

Minister of the Displaced Affairs Ghada Chreim said on social media that “it’s a tightly woven scenario to hold the six-month-old cabinet responsible for previous corruption, negligence and hypocrisy. We are not evading our responsibility, but we will never allow them to make us a scapegoat.”

“You will be held accountable, and like dominoes you will fall. The Lebanese people know who was reckless with their lives and who stole their dreams, wealth and country.”

Such vitriol could lead to further sectarian conflict in Lebanon. Shiites and Christians in the 8 March Alliance (FPM and the Marada Movement led by Suleiman Frangieh) are concerned the present proposals would mean marginalising them, even if they are led by France, historically an ally of Lebanon’s Maronites.

The French proposal seeks to reassure the Shiites and Sunnis by calling for a national-unity government that includes civil society forces.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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